LINCOLN, Neb.—Nebraska is forging ahead with plans to hold the nations first in-person election in more than a month, despite health concerns about the CCP virus pandemic and allegations that political motivations are fueling opposition to an all-mail approach.
Barring an unexpected change, Nebraskas primary will take place on May 12—five weeks after Wisconsin held the last in-person balloting when courts sided with Republican legislators who pushed for that election to go forward.
Republicans who hold all statewide offices and control the Legislature have encouraged people to cast early, absentee ballots. However, they argue state law requires polling sites to be open and that its important for voters to have a choice for how they vote, even amid health concerns.
As Secretary of State Bob Evnen put it last month, “I dont think Nebraskans are going to stay away from the polls or not vote because of a microbe.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts agreed, arguing that to do otherwise would “disenfranchise voters who want to go to the polls,” and noting that elections were previously held despite wars and pandemics.
Others, however, questioned the motives behind the decision to hold the first statewide election since Wisconsins much-criticized April 7 primary and expressed doubt voting could safely take place. Wisconsin health officials say more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during the election have tested positive for COVID-19.
The primary will decide a Democratic contest to pick a nominee to face Republican Rep. Don Bacon in the Omaha areas 2nd Congressional District, traditionally the only U.S. House seat in Nebraska where Democrats are competitive. Voters will also pick candidates in dozens of ostensibly nonpartisan legislative races, which could help determine whether Republicans gain a super-majority in the Legislature.
Nebraska Democrats have asserted for weeks that Republican leaders dont want to hold an all-mail election because of concern it would help Democrats, especially in the urban areas of Omaha and Lincoln. Republicans have dismissed such claims, but Democrats point to statements by President Donald Trump who has said “youd never have a Republican elected in this country again” if all states switched to vote-by-mail.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Ricketts and the state GOP are concerned about any change that might boost Democratic turnout.
“The only reason I can see the governor not doing it is for political reasons,” she said. “The Republican playbook is always to suppress the vote. They know that when fewer people vote, they win elections.”
Sen. Steve Lathrop, an Omaha Democrat, also criticized the decision to hold a polling place election but said that with the primary only a couple of weeks away, its too late to change course now.
“Given the seriousness of the pandemic, we should have turned this into a vote-by-mail election,” Lathrop said.
Officials plan to provide all poll workers with gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes, and the state has purchased 50 additional ballot drop-off boxes for counties.
Still, the planned election concerns some public health officials who watched what happened in Wisconsin, where public health departments reported at least 19 people who voted or worked at the polls have tested positive for the CCP virus.
“If youre asking me as a public health official whether this increases the risk of transmission, the answer is definitive—yes,” said Dr. Patrick Remington, director of the University of Wisconsin Madisons Preventative Medicine Residency Program. “That is a scientific fact, no matter how much protective equipment people wear.”
Still, even some voting-rights advocates say they understand the difficulty of shifting to all-mail voting.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, said Nebraska “doesnt have the mechanisms in place” for vote-by-mail.